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Pentagon Bills Injured Soldiers $1.2 Million

April 28, 2006|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After suffering paralysis, brain damage, lost limbs and other wounds in war, nearly 900 soldiers have been saddled with $1.2 million in government debt because of the military's "complex, cumbersome" pay system, congressional investigators said Thursday.

The report from the Government Accountability Office said another 400 who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had $300,000 in debt but that the Defense Department did not pursue reimbursement from the estates of those who were killed in combat.

"We found that hundreds of separated battle-injured soldiers were pursued for collection of military debts incurred through no fault of their own," said the report. It said that included seeking reimbursement for errors in pay or for equipment left on the battlefield.

The problem became known months ago as soldiers began to complain and lawmakers asked for the report.

The Pentagon said it had been working to resolve it.

"My experience is the military ... when these things are reported to them, work aggressively to resolve them," said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. "Not by way of trying to make any excuses, it's clear that our ... processes could be shored up to try to prevent some of these ... from happening."

"It's unconscionable," Ryan Kelly, 25, a retired staff sergeant who lost a leg to a roadside bomb, told the Washington Post. He said he spent more than a year trying to fend off a debt of $2,231. "It's sad that we'd let that happen," Kelly said.

Kelly told the Post that in 2004, months after learning to walk on a prosthesis, he opened his mailbox to find a letter saying he was in debt to the government -- and in jeopardy of referral to a collection agency. "It hits you in the gut," he said. "It's like, 'Thanks for your service, and now you owe us.' "

The Post reported that the underlying problem is an antiquated computer system for paying and tracking members of the military. Pay records are not integrated with personnel records, creating numerous errors. When soldiers leave the battlefield, for example, they lose a pay differential, but the system can take time to lower their pay.

The government then tries to recoup overpayments, docking pay for active-duty troops and sending debt notices to those who have left the military. Eventually, the government sends private agencies to collect debts and notifies credit bureaus.

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